Tag Archives: Discussion

On Emerging

I haven’t yet seen Sylvia Dow’s A Beginning, A Middle and an End. My tickets are booked and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it reaches the Traverse.

My reasons are twofold. First, I have fond memories of Sylvia. I’ve no idea whether she would remember me, but back when I was 16 and still suffering from delusions of wanting to be a singer, she gave me my first major role in an amateur production of Viva Mexico. (Seriously. This is my version of a misspent youth.) So when I saw that she’d written a play I was keen to see it and to hope it’s going well for her. 

Second, even if I’d never met Sylvia I would be intrigued by the publicity surrounding her as a playwright having her first play produced at 73. This fact attracts a great deal of comment in the reviews I’ve seen, and it got me thinking about the culture of “emerging artists” and the expectation that “emerging” should be synonymous with “young”. Take this review from Mark Fisher, for example: Click! The final sentence really interests me, describing this play as “an auspicious, if tardy, debut”.

‘Tardy’ is a really interesting choice of word. Dictionary.com offers the definitions late; behind time; not on time; moving or acting slowly; slow; sluggish; delaying through reluctance. All of these have rather negative connotations – possibly not Mr Fisher’s intention, and I chose his review rather than any other because it happened to be the last one I read. What intrigues me is not the attitude of an individual reviewr but  how the word choice might indicate that we’ve internalised the idea that making one’s debut should happen during youth.

I don’t know Sylvia’s circumstances. I’ve no idea why her playwriting career is just beginning now. Maybe she was happily prioritising other things. Maybe she was languishing in a job she hated and working up the nerve to send out her script. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this particular medium until recently. I don’t know.

I would only consider this to be a truly tardy debut if for some reason it should have happened earlier. If, for some reason, some administrative error or some failure to recognise her ability or some dastardly plot to keep her work from being programmed were at fault – if the work was there and ready to go but being held back by some outside agency when it should have been out there – then I might use the same phrase. But if someone makes a series of choices which lead to their beginning a playwriting career at 73, I’d rather use language that applauds them.

The question of what constitutes an emerging artist comes up again and again. Many schemes for emerging playwrights have upper age limits. The Traverse Young Writers group is for 18 – 25s, likewise the Royal Court. Old Vic New Voices only recently opened widened its age range so that you can now make it to the grand old age of 30 before you cease to be eligible.

When I look at publicity concerning new playwrights there’s frequently a mention of their age. Look at Ella Hickson, Lucy Prebble, Katori Hall, Mike Bartlett – just a few off the top of my head, all of whom were in their early to mid twenties when they experienced their first major successes. I remember when Enron came out, for example, much was made in the media of Lucy Prebble’s youth and precocity. It’s understandable that people look for human interest and I suppose age is a part of that, but I think there’s a real danger in the idea that producing work young is automatically a good thing. Some of the work produced by young playwrights is amazing. Some is not. There’s a lot more to it than age.

18 – 25 were turbulent years for me. I had my first major depressive episode at 18 and could barely put my socks on, let alone write. Just after I got back on my feet, my mother died. The following year, my father died and I was being watched for signs of pancreatic cancer. Eight months after that I was badly injured in a car accident. I had to spend two years living in my dead parents’ house because I had nowhere else to go while the estate was being wound up. By the time I was in a position to start rebuilding my life and training as a director, I was 24.

I’m now a few months away from my 30th birthday. Going by many people’s definition of ’emerging’, I’m either already past it or I’m about to be. Yet it took me until a couple of years ago to be able to write anything I felt I could submit, so in many ways I still feel like an emerging writer.

On the one hand, I’ve got a ton of valuable life experience. On the other hand, I’ve got all the angst that goes with it. That kind of life experience isn’t necessarily something that you can put to use straight away. For a long time I found that it was just to painful to write anything truthful. Even if the subject matter wasn’t directly related to my own experiences, I couldn’t put my characters through anything really difficult because I couldn’t bear to subject anyone to the same levels of pain that I had been through, even if they were fictional. Writing plays where nothing too bad happens to anyone doesn’t really get you that far, since conflict drives drama.

Or I would go to the other extreme and write deeply tortured work, trying to understand why I had to go through so much, trying to make sense of my grief. I still have the things I wrote then. At this moment I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever share them, because some things are just too raw and too personal. There’s no way I could handle criticism on that stuff, especially not from anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but I’m not convinced that that will ever be for public consumption.

The bits and pieces that I wrote during that time added up to nothing complete. My focus was too narrow – I would write scene after scene going over the same ideas, because my focus was on making sense of my experience rather than creating a narrative that could be understood from the outside. Working my way past that stage took time, so I didn’t have a completed play to my name until I was 28.

Sometimes that makes me feel ancient, slow, somehow less worthy than all these people who were produced playwrights before they turned 23. It makes me feel that if I had only worked harder, applied myself more, I could have done that too.

Realistically, I know I couldn’t. Being an only child dealing with the emotional and administrative nightmare of dying parents is… well, time-consuming, amongst other things. My dedication and application weren’t really the issue. At 21, my priority was making sure my dad’s final months were as painless as possible. My head was full of Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate and morphine:sedative ratios. Shaping anything I wrote into something worth reading would have required energy I simply didn’t have. And as for being trapped in their house, surrounded by memories and devoid of other options… it’s creatively stifling, to say the least. If you can’t imagine why, think yourself lucky.

Anyway, all this is to say that for me, getting anywhere with my writing when I was under 25 was simply not on the cards. Even without my slightly melodramatic circumstances, it’s quite possible that for some people it simply takes a while to find their way onto that path. Priorities change. People change. Perhaps it would be healthy to respect and even celebrate that, rather than clinging to this slightly X-Factor-ish idea that people are “born” to do something and work towards it all their lives, never letting anything get in their way. Really, how many of us can honestly lay claim to that? Passion is no less true because you discover or acknowledge it later in life, and only a privileged few don’t encounter any major setbacks along the way.

I realise that in order for support for artists to exist there are always going to be categories and that most of the time these will be pretty arbitrary. It’s imperfect, but it’s part of life and all we can do is look for ways to keep improving things. That said, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the tiny, subtle judgements and values that sneak their way into our thoughts, revealing themselves every so often in the words we use and the way we respond to things.

That’s a lot of words to say “Why can’t we just judge writers by their writing rather than their life stories?”, but I don’t write these posts just to throw questions out into the void. Nor do I write them thinking that I’ll reach an answer on the first attempt. I write this and leave it here, perhaps to be unpicked further after these current thoughts have percolated for a while. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to seeing Sylvia’s show later this month.


An Invitation

A short post today, because I’m full of the cold and barely know my own name so coherent content is beyond me.

I never got round to writing a post about my experiences at Devoted & Disgruntled. It was at the end of July, which meant that by the time I’d got my thoughts together I had no time to write about them. The moment for going into detail may have passed, but the short version is this: it was fantastic.

My expectations were not high. I was expecting apathy, a small turnout, a fair bit of moaning, little by way of solutions, lots of walking on eggshells. I’d also never been to an Open Space meeting before, and to be honest I was suspicious of the promise of open, self-governing discussion. I expected to get their and find that everything would be unsubtly guided and that there would still be right and wrong answers according to someone’s agenda. This probably tells you quite a bit about the things I fear and some of the experiences that have left their mark on me along the way – future posts, every one…

So imagine my surprise when I got there and found out that the meeting was everything it promised to be. It honestly was facilitated, not led. The meeting set the broad question “What are we going to do about theatre?” and under that banner, we were at liberty to call discussions on whatever we wanted. The range was massive, from the role of Creative Scotland to the role of ushers, from being a mid-career artist to how we were all feeling midway through the second day.

Everything felt very free. We could move from group to group, speak freely, tweet freely. There were no rules, just a few guidelines for how to get the most out of it – and those guidelines were focused on permission, not restriction.

It’s amazing what a difference that makes to someone like me. Tell me what I’m not allowed to do and I’ll immediately get annoyed and start kicking against the rules. Give me freedom to do as I like and I’m much better behaved. I suspect that’s true of many, perhaps even most artists.  We’re not really ‘rules’ people on the whole, are we? (Again, future posts…) Perhaps greater freedom rather than greater regulation is the thing that will help us find creative solutions to the problems facing the theatre industry.

I didn’t want the weekend to end. I was overwhelmed, over-stimulated, exhausted and energised all at once. All I wanted to do was rest for a bit and then start up again. That’s how I found myself speaking up in the closing circle and offering Tightlaced’s rehearsal studio as a space for a follow-up. I’d love to think that we might be able to have regular satellite groups, but one thing at a time.

So this is an open invitation to anyone who wants to come to the follow-up meeting. You don’t have to have been at the weekend in July. You just have to want to come. Here are the details:

Date: Sunday 16 September

Time: 10.00 – 19.00 (You can come and go as you please. I recommend bringing a packed lunch if you’re coming for the full day.)

Place: Studio G21, Art’s Complex, 151 London Road, EH7 6AE. Click here for directions/buses.

Click here for the link to the Facebook event, which you can join and distribute as you please. 


Disheartened & Dejected: Reflections on a Reflection Meeting

Deep in the labyrinth that is Creative Scotland’s website lay the announcement of an open meeting to discuss the recent Theatre Sector Review. I only heard about it through social media and then found the details with a bit of creative googling. Maybe this explains why the turnout wasn’t higher. It wasn’t bad, but for something that matters to so many theatremakers, it should have been higher.

The production values weren’t bad, I’ll give them that – the meeting took place in a huge, fancy-looking room, all plate glass and white walls. The tea came in proper crockery. The couches in the waiting area are colour co-ordinated with the Visitors’ badges. It looks slick.

Yet for all its professional appearance, the meeting got off to a late and somewhat rambling start. Indeed, it was never clearly stated what the purpose of the meeting was. To ‘reflect’ on the Report, yes – and yet that’s the one thing we were never actually permitted to do.

Without being given an opportunity to discuss it as a complete group, we were messily divided into three sub-groups. Despite the presence of at least four Creative Scotland staff, only two of the three groups had anyone facilitating, which suggests either a failure to organise properly or a certain indecision as to how things should be run. I’m all for discussion with no facilitator – you know, ‘open’ discussion – and it would have been simple enough for the CS staff to have watched and listened and taken note of what was being said.

In fact, this might have been a much better way to do things. In the first place, it would have resolved the issue of taking minutes, since the CS staff could have done that. Instead, volunteers were required from each group to take responsibility for minuting the discussion, typing it up and sending it in. As anyone who has ever taken minutes will tell you, there’s a knack to minuting effectively without being left out of the discussion, and it seemed to me rather unfair to ask people who had come to join the discussion to take on this task, especially as it means typing it up in their own time.

In the second, if Creative Scotland had simply been facilitating a discussion between theatremakers it would have felt less… guarded? Contrived? Slippery? There was something problematic about the way questions about the report itself were dismissed and any attempt at wider discussion shut down. We were there to agree with the report in broad terms, supply a few nifty soundbites and allow the box marked “Public Consultation” to be ticked. Linking Creative Scotland directly with the report was strictly forbidden – it’s a report commissioned by Creative Scotland, it’s not their report. Why the need to make that distinction? Why distance themselves from the report unless they don’t trust it, and if they don’t trust it why steer us away from any in-depth discussion?

It was all the more conspicuous when we were refused clarification of other terms. The Report makes mention of a desired “20% growth”. When I asked what this meant I was told it referred to a 20% growth in “resources”. Is it just me, or is that basically the corporate synonym for “stuff”? Likewise, when I asked why “new work” was taken as being one of the “great things about Scottish theatre” without any explanation on interrogation of the term, I was told “We’d rather not go back over the report”. Right. So anything new is good, the fact that Scotland makes new work somehow makes us different to pretty much everywhere else and we’re supposed to accept all this without question or comment.

For added irony, the conversation moved on to a discussion of quality and how we measure and feedback on it. If this meeting was anything to go by, it would seem Creative Scotland plans to measure it by taking a unilateral decision on whether something is a good thing or not, then sticking by it without further evaluation. I really hope that’s not the case, but an organisation that has been so roundly criticised for its lack of clarity and failure to engage in any meaningful way with the artistic community might want to take a little more care over the way it presents itself. However sincere and well-meaning CS may be, they can’t afford to pay no attention to anything that makes them appear otherwise.

It’s infuriating to find yourself in a room with so many creative, intelligent people who all have plenty to say (and I’m not just talking about airing our funding grievances), then to be unable to have a proper conversation with them because you’re trapped in a discussion which is so tightly controlled that it feels almost scripted. It made me long for another Devoted & Disgruntled session, where conversations are free and self-governing. We’re not little children who are incapable of sticking to the point unless we’re properly marshalled. The conversations at D&D were remarkably non-chaotic. They achieved a lot. It felt like we were making progress. Perhaps that was because we weren’t spending our time on corporate jargon and keeping everything ‘on message’.

By the end of the session I felt upset and vaguely angry. I found myself wondering how I can ever make any headway in this industry if it means penetrating the Byzantine workings of organisations such as Creative Scotland. And yet I’m not the only person who feels this way. There are plenty of practitioners out there who find CS confusing and stressful. Some of them speak up. Some of them don’t, because you mustn’t upset the people who write the cheques. Personally, I’d rather trust the individuals at Creative Scotland to be mature, sensible people who can take criticism and learn from it, adjusting how they engage with artists if necessary.

I strongly believe that we need more communication with Creative Scotland – more discussion, less corporate jargon, more trust on both sides. Perhaps the first thing we need to do, before we spend more time going round in circles having unproductive, box-ticking discussions, is learn to talk to each other.